Buddy Guy’s blues and soul spirit reaches everywhere. Here I was today, working on assembling my Buddy Guy tribute package as a tasty tie-in and preview to his pair of local shows later this week (Aug. 2 at the Calvin Theatre in Northampton; Aug. 3 at the Lowell Summer Music Series in Lowell), and listening to some of my favorite Guy guitar workouts, including some music from his brand new “Rhythm & Blues” album, released today. And I didn’t even realize until just now that today, July 30, is Buddy’s 77th birthday.
For most of this morning, I had been smiling at the memory of happening upon his 1979 album, “Stone Crazy!” on the great Alligator Records label, at the old “Faces of Earth” music and crafts store in Amherst, Massachusetts not too long after it finally saw release in the U.S. in 1981. Hmmm, “Stone Crazy!” eh? Its title (and that exclamation point) held great promise. The picture of Buddy bringing a furious onslaught of notes looked pretty convincing too. The liner notes on the back cover sealed the deal, basically assuring me that my mind would be blown by this dude. Good enough for me. I paid the fare to take the ride, took “Stone Crazy!” home, and fired it up. And immediately found out that indeed, the liner notes did not lie. My mind was, in fact, officially blown. And still is, on a regular basis.
To this day, Guy remains a favorite, even if I tend to prefer the albums he made before the Grammys started raining down on his head like the liquid gold he so richly deserved being showered by. (I’ve never been big on celebrity guest stars larding albums by great artists; for my money, more pure, unadulterated Buddy Guy and less wanna-be show-offs like Jonny Lang the better).
Here’s the full version of a memorable and wonderful interview the ever-gracious Buddy granted me back in the spring of 1998, and a feature I subsequently wrote about him for RollingStone.com, as well as my original review of his “Heavy Love” album published in the Boston Phoenix. Enjoy them, and the music below, on Buddy’s birthday. I know I’m smiling already. I hope he is too.
Buddy Guy doesn’t think he’s much of a guitarist. But then, that’s Buddy Guy for you. The man whose incendiary live performances have simply got to be heard to be believed, the man whom Eric Clapton routinely calls “the greatest living blues guitarist in the world,” the man who, after a lifetime of toil, hustle and rejection is finally receiving the recognition — if not the commercial airplay — he so richly deserves, also happens to be one of the humblest people you’ll ever meet.
“I’m not a great singer, and I don’t think I’m a really great guitar player,” says Guy on the phone from his adopted home in Chicago. “But those things are two halves and when you put them together, I guess maybe they make a pretty good whole.”
Forty years and four Grammy Awards (all won this decade) into his career, Guy — who turns sixty-two in July — is about to release Heavy Love (Silvertone), an album of sometimes snarling, sometimes soulfully burnished blues that will undoubtedly put him in the running for a fifth trophy.
Last spring, Guy opened for the Rolling Stones on the closing date of their U.S. tour in Chicago, and in July, he’ll kick off a tour of his own (with teenage blues prodigy Jonny Lang) that should serve as a reminder of where disciples from Jimi Hendrix to Stevie Ray Vaughan got their ideas about hotwiring a blues-stoked guitar to amped rock and wrapping it up in a package of fiery showmanship.
“When I pick up my guitar, man, I get excited,” Guy says, and you can practically hear the smile spread across his face on the other end of the line. “When I first came to Chicago, guys like B.B. (King) used to look at me and say, ‘he’s gotta be on drugs.’ But I didn’t even know what drugs were when I come here from Louisiana, man. I can’t just stand there. If I hit a note and it makes me happy, I’ve got to shout about it because I’m from the old Baptist church, man.”
Guy didn’t become “the greatest living blues guitarist in the world” overnight. When he made the pilgrimage from his hometown of Baton Rouge, La. to check out the post-war electric blues explosion in the late Fifties, his goals were considerably more modest.
“I came to Chicago to hear people like Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters, not to meet ’em, because to me that would have been unreal,” he says. “And when I wound up shaking hands with those people I thought I had my Grammy and my gold record. And here I am now, talking with you this morning and they’re no longer with us. Hopefully, they’re looking down on me and smiling because they know I’m trying to carry on.”
For many of those years between the time Guy began recording his own dynamic brand of blues for the Chess label and success consented to meet him halfway, carrying on hasn’t come easy. The story, of course, is a familiar one, rooted mostly in the racism of a white mainstream’s refusal to play authentic blues on the radio even as it embraced pale imitations of the form.
For Guy, it meant going more than a decade without a recording contract, and surviving through endless barn-storming tours with harpist Junior Wells, his great friend and longtime collaborator who died earlier this year at age sixty-three. Before Wells’ death, there had been speculation in blues circles as to why the two stopped touring together by the mid-Nineties. Guy says rumors of a falling-out couldn’t be farther from the truth.
“I was with him until the last breath left his body,” Guy says of Wells. “When we broke up, the media made it seem as if it was something between us, and that wasn’t the case, man. What happened was that we were playing small joints and every time we’d play, [the club owner] would turn the house over twice or three times. To play forty minutes for someone who paid a few bucks to see both of us wasn’t fair to the fans. We tried to make it work and just couldn’t do it.”
But the fruitful Guy/Wells partnership, which had begun in 1965 and produced several seminal albums, made the pair a favorite international touring draw during the Seventies and Eighties — even if Guy couldn’t find a home for his music. Forgotten amid all the young guitar slingers he had influenced, and forced to make ends meet — apparently, being merely one of the hottest blues guitarists and singers on the planet wasn’t enough to land him a decent record deal — Guy went to work at an automotive plant.
With traces of pain in his soft voice, he admits to becoming deeply dejected back then; cringing at the thought that his grandchildren might never really know or believe his true legacy as an electric blues pioneer. When they saw him, he wondered, would they think of him as anything more than just another old man on the assembly line? To record labels, talent scouts, and music executives, Buddy Guy was out of sight, out of mind. Invisible. Except he was always right there, waiting to play and perform; ready to record again.
“All the while when I was without a contract, guitar players like Eric [Clapton], Jeff Beck, and Stevie Ray Vaughan kept saying, ‘I got this from Buddy and I got that from Buddy, and the record companies were saying, ‘Well, who is he? Is he white? How old is he?,'” Guy says. “I got reports back about ten years ago of people saying I was too old to play.”
When Clapton invited Guy to perform as a guest at his annual Royal Albert Hall concert series, however, his appearance made one thing abundantly clear: if Guy was too old to play guitar, he was certainly fooling everyone with the blazing fretwork and those blizzard-fast runs. Within months, Guy was signed to Silvertone and began what is essentially his second career. It was if he had never been away. His first album for Silvertone, 1991’s Damn Right, I’ve Got The Blues, featured appearances by several of the artists who had championed him and introduced Guy’s guitar to a whole new generation of fans. The album won him his first Grammy.
Still, some things never change. It’s still a painful memory for Guy as he recalls the time not during the 1950’s or 60’s but only a few years ago when a young disc jockey in his old hometown of Baton Rouge approached him at the table where he was autographing copies of Damn Right, his first gold record. The DJ told Guy that he loved the album but wasn’t allowed to play it on the air — because of Guy’s skin color. To some people (and their number is, hopefully, diminishing) all the gold records and Grammys in the world didn’t matter, apparently, and never would.
But Guy long ago proved to be more resilient, and certainly more talented, than all the racists and bigots and naysayers could ever dream of being. And through the bad times and the worse, Guy claims he’s never been a man to hold grudges or dwell on past hurts, past wrongs. He just keeps plugging in and pressing on. He believes in his music, and the people who take a chance on it. That’s why he’s still here, doing what he does like nobody else.
“Being black and a blues player, man, you just hope you can get something out there that radio stations will play,” Guy says. “The biggest challenge for me is making a record that they can’t refuse to play. Because I got a job to do, man. It’s a burden that’s been put on my shoulders by Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Sonny Boy Williamson, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Jimmy Reed … all those guys. I’m trying to carry the torch for them.”
Listen here to one of the most ridiculously ferociously funky tracks ever put on record, Buddy Guy’s “You’ve Been Gone Too Long,” from his seminal 1979 “Stone Crazy” album (released in the U.S. in 1981) and then by all means buy this record: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qfMP2kbCgLI
Listen to Buddy’s scorching “I Smell A Rat” from his equally scorching “Stone Crazy” album right here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=emoIEmJ9ktg
Read my original Rolling Stone.com profile on Buddy Guy here: http://www.rollingstone.com/music/news/damn-right-hes-buddy-guy-19980522
Hear and buy Buddy Guy’s new album, “Rhythm & Blues” here: https://itunes.apple.com/us/album/rhythm-blues/id662341640